“Reality and fantasy are mutually exclusive.”
The Discovery poses an utterly fascinating question to its audience: What would you do if you knew an afterlife existed? In this bleak and dreary and cold story world, suicide has been rebranded from a senseless act to one with curious ambitions. No longer is it a last-ditch option, but is considered a fast-pass to a more enticing existence. As such, a rising number of people – from common folk to celebrities – begin to off themselves at staggering rates in search of what comes next. It’s the type of query that separates the religious from the secular, and because this movie has its wits about it, neither side fully takes over. The Discovery demands that you scrutinize decisions, that you think philosophically, and has the presence of mind to respect that such open-ended lines of questioning align more beside Amor fati practices rather than any singular answer.
A disregard for life might mean good business for funeral homes and overtime pay for gravediggers, but for the skeptics out there, including neurologist Will (Jason Segel), the actions are gleaned with a pessimistic outlook on the porcelain nature of the mind. He’s a prodigal son returning home to beg his dad Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) – the scientist credited with “The Discovery” – to disclaim his findings and to own the culpability of countless deaths. Because this plot requires conflict, there’s no armistice reached between father and son, and Thomas takes a step further claiming to have invented a way to record where our souls go after flatlining. The Discovery floods your head gates with puzzlement and inquiry, mostly due to the fact that the film defies linear sensibilities. And while this is a maddening task of sub conscious excavation asked of the viewer, the random holes are dug and outlined with precision before we even attempt to fill them in.
Also starring is the formidable Jesse Plemons as Will’s brother Toby who helps Thomas run experiments and manage a cult-like manor full of suicidal outcasts. However, Will’s main preoccupation comes in helping a stranger named Isla (Rooney Mara). She’s a traumatized woman, leery of taking her life and unsympathetic towards those who have while she’s still unable to cope with her past. It’s around this segment that The Discovery shifts into what could be deemed investigative obituary journalism, adding in mystery elements and time shifting planes of existence. Is it confusing and convoluted and weighed down by a brick and mortar sense of mortality? Yes to all of the above. But The Discovery is so self-aware – maybe inconveniently so towards an audience partially left on the outskirts – that it takes every possible fork in the road while casting seeds to retrace it steps towards the point of origin. The ambition is as overwhelmingly rousing as it is occasionally inhibiting.
Writer/Director Charlie McDowell has yet to make a truly great film; both his previous feature The One I Love and his latest build on entirely unique premises that tend to falter in their execution. The original ideas are there even if the follow-through misses the target, yet he stimulates his audience and leaves them in limbo like few American directors are capable of at the moment. I’m certain that he’ll one day craft a masterpiece of science fiction. But for now we must settle for a film that is by most measures concerned with existential crisis, a purgatorial afterlife derived from the consequences of being, and the “what if” moments we long to manipulate once more. It’s a scholarly approach influenced by Nietzche’s concept of Eternal Return, and a picture that makes you smarter through its ambiguity. Like the muscles attached to our bones, the brain can enter a state of atrophy if we do not exercise it. The Discovery might be hit or miss in its conclusion, but there’s no denying how intentionally physically taxing it is on the mind. The exhaustion is thoroughly earned and could have been perfected had it only provided a well to quench our thirst.
“Now that, right there, is the million-dollar question.”
Rating: 4 out of 5